The RSC are giving Shakespeare a rest this Christmas. While the main theatre has its usual family-friendly show with David Edgar’s adaptation of ‘A Christmas Carol’, the Swan Theatre hosts Imperium – Mike Poulton’s adaptation of Robert Harris’s Cicero novels. At over 6 hours of theatre, spread over two shows, this one is perhaps a little less family-friendly. But it has three long books to cover, not just a slim volume of Dickens.
‘A Christmas Carol’ is of course a treat, and particularly a visual treat, although not because of lavish scenery. At times it needs only a top hat and a dress coat here, a couple of doors there, to summon up Victorian London, or perhaps more specifically Dickensian London. The scene with Mr. Fezziwig in Scrooge’s youth is probably not really Victorian, but captured so perfectly the Dickensian image of a slightly earlier period that it seemed to bring the original book illustration to life.
Phil Davis is well cast as Scrooge, surely partly on the basis of his earlier role as Smallweed in the TV adaptation of Bleak House. I didn’t find his personal journey to greater empathy and happiness entirely convincing though. There’s neither a gradual process of understanding, nor a sudden epiphany – more just a feeling of well yes, of course I see that, which is difficult to square with his earlier attitudes.
But the bigger difficulty I have with this production is the role of Dickens, who wanders in and out of the action with his friend, and later biographer, John Forster. David Edgar and the Director, Rachel Kavanaugh, seem to have decided that the story doesn’t stand well enough on its own. It risks being seen as – well, a feel-good family-friendly Christmas show. So they rather ram down our throats the message that Dickens was not just writing a Christmas ghost story – he was a campaigner trying to draw attention to some of the social evils of the time. Slightly bizarrely they show Forster having to convince Dickens, the great storyteller, that a story might be the best way to get his political and social message across.
But in doing so they seem to be denying this very premise. They don’t trust the storyteller to get his message across through the story – they have to give him a second chance to air his views by talking directly to the audience as well. Dickens didn’t have to do that – he could just publish the story and let it stand on its own – and the RSC shouldn’t need to either.
‘Imperium’ too has a narrator, who both takes part in the action and stands back from it to pass comment on it, but at least here it’s a device that comes directly from the book. Joseph Kloska plays Tiro, Cicero’s secretary and biographer. He’s very likeable in the role, although it’s slightly odd that he seems not to age, while his master does. The role works much better than with Dickens in a Christmas Carol, and partly because it’s treated a little less earnestly and more tongue in cheek.
There’s still a feeling though that the RSC isn’t quite prepared to trust its audience to draw their own conclusions. As one example, at a key point in the first play they plant in the audience’s mind the idea that perhaps it was Cicero himself who wrote some forged letters. They then reinforce the idea with muttering from one of his slaves about the role he had to play in the affair. But that’s not enough – at the end of the play, as though delivering the final coup, they reveal that, surprise surprise, Cicero wrote the letters.
It felt similar in the second play when Mark Anthony’s continual drunken staggering seemed mainly designed to reinforce the point, repeated several times, that his wife was the real power behind the throne. A few lines of carefully crafted dialogue, or perhaps even a single raised finger, could have made the point far more effectively. Or given that the plays were very light on female roles, we could perhaps have heard more directly from Fulvia herself, with less focus on her alleged puppet (compare Shakespeare’s treatment of Lady Macbeth for example). As it is, the women in the play are little more than caricatures, there for sentimentality or for cheap jokes about licentiousness or avarice.
And what on earth was going on with the apparent appearance of Julius Caesar’s ghost, screaming ‘Avenge me’, at his state funeral? Were Mark Anthony’s words not enough indication that were those who would be seeking revenge? I don’t recall Shakespeare having to make the point quite so unsubtly. Subtlety was not really the strong point of this version, certainly not when it came to a perma-tanned, bouffant-haired Pompey declaring “I’m a Republican”.
Perhaps I protest too much. No-one is claiming that this is Shakespeare. For all the lack of subtlety, these were two wonderfully enjoyable evenings of theatre. Richard McCabe held them together with a strong performance as Cicero and impressive stamina, channelling his inner Tony Hancock into moments of world-weary cynicism inbetween his oratorical triumphs and disasters. I enjoyed too the performance of Peter de Jersey as Julius Caesar, convincing both as a military leader and as a smooth politician, where you could always sense the steel hand beneath his velvet glove.